PICTURED: Rio Plaza Elementary teacher Denis O’Leary leads students through the Pledge of Allegiance on May 1. (Photo submitted)

by David Michael Courtland

As the 2019-20 school year wraps up, local educators forced by the COVID-19 crisis to teach remotely say they are getting the job done, despite being unprepared for the sudden switch to distance learning in March.

“We went out on Friday the 13th and thought we’d come back on Monday, but that was it,” recalled Michael Armstrong, who teaches fourth grade at McKinna Elementary School in Oxnard. 

There were some bumps, to be sure. Issues around Internet access, computer skills and participation. New tools to learn. Questions about grading. Nevertheless, teachers and students throughout Ventura County persevered through this most unusual of semesters.

Computer, platform challenges

“Any student who needs a device has been given the option to check out an iPad or a Chromebook from the district to complete their distance learning,” said Marieanne Quiroz, communications coordinator for Ventura Unified School District. “The largest challenge the district faced was finding a platform that would be accessible to all of our teachers and students quickly . . . We needed to find platforms that could be onboarded with minimal time and training.” VUSD teachers use different platforms depending on grade level — Canvas for fifth grade or lower and Edgenuity for sixth grade and higher classes. 

Despite initial struggles with Zoom and Google software, teachers have managed to create a structured enough routine for students to continue learning.

“We’re able to create a lot of activities tied to the subject,” Armstrong said, adding that the emphasis is more on participation than grading. “We try to make it as much fun as we can. [Kids] have all the same struggles as adults but have no control over it. They miss interaction.”

“We have the advantage of a board whose position is that every student should have a device,” said Oxnard School District Superintendent Dr. Karling Aguilera-Fort. Being able to send students home with iPads was a critical part of his district’s success with remote learning, and he credits his predecessor, Cesar Morales, with guiding the school board toward a policy of making sure each student had a computer.

According to Aguilera-Fort, fourth, fifth and sixth graders like the new format. Students have a schedule and meet with teachers in small groups, but homework deadlines are more flexible. “Seventh and eighth graders say they miss the social interaction. For them, the ideal would be a mix of long distance learning and social interaction.”

Parents have been overwhelmingly supportive of the program — in fact, “I truly have not received a complaint,” Aguilera-Fort said. “For the most part families are saying they are pleased with the work that is in place.”

“All of this is new, so we are all looking for improvements,” Aguilera-Fort said. “Our teachers are doing the best they can to organize a different way of teaching; for them it’s a challenge.”

Disparities in Internet access, participation

Internet access is imperative for distance learning. According to Aguilera-Fort, some 1,500 OSD families don’t have it, something he said is “is absolutely related to income.” For those families, OSD has taken on an expense it didn’t plan for — providing Wi-Fi hotspots through routers. “It’s a big investment, but I think we will be able to meet the need.”

Tiffany Morse, Ojai Unified School District’s superintendent, also found it challenging to provide every student with a device to access the Internet, and a hotspot to go with it.

“We’ve heard the state may be sending funding by the end of May,” just as the school year is wrapping up, said Morse. “That’s problematic in terms of usefulness.”

According to Veronica Ortega, assistant superintendent of educational services at Pleasant Valley Unified School District, Internet access generally wasn’t a challenge for middle schoolers, but “it was one of the more challenging aspects for younger students. We’ve worked with families to get hotspots.”

The other big obstacle has been participation. Armstrong says only about half of his students are able to complete activities regularly. As with Internet access, family income is a major factor.

“There’s a lot of job insecurity,” Armstrong said, “or sometimes kids don’t have Internet access until late in the evening after everyone else is done with the computer.”

Helping children with schoolwork has been a challenge for working parents, Ortega said. “We’ve had a lot of positive feedback, but it’s put parents in the situation of partnering with us. They’re used to seeing homework come home, but now they’re participating.”

Morse said that just as with the conventional classroom setting, some students flourished, some did poorly, and most were in between.

“A few students have never checked in,” noted Morse. “Some students check in to some classes but not all classes — I think it’s hard to keep up with them.” Consequently, some middle and high school students “are doing well in some classes and struggling in others.”

By contrast, the remote learning attendance rate has been 97.7 percent at La Reina, a private Catholic college preparatory middle and high school for girls located in Thousand Oaks. La Reina Principal Maggie Marschner said the transition to remote learning was seamless for its teachers because they had already been thoroughly trained in the technology used. 

“The way teachers designed their lessons is what really helped the transition the most,” she said. “We give students multiple ways to learn, then many ways to show they’ve learned.”

Rio School District fifth-grade teacher Denis O’Leary said 26 of his 30 Rio Plaza Elementary students have been attending eagerly. While this is partially due to the school having laptops available, he also sent kids home with books. “So, in my case, I’m not asking them to go to a computer program. I’m asking them to round-robin read.”

O’Leary said his students have been so engaged that they volunteer to read to their group. Even so, some students have not responded well. “The students that are enthusiastic about learning are very enthusiastic and the students who are not usually enthusiastic are pulling back and not connecting at all.”

Students’ mental health has been a priority in Ojai Unified, where counselors have been kept available for students to talk to for emotional support.

“We’ve seen that need just grow exponentially,” Morse said. “Students are depressed, having anxiety, this is a really hard thing for younger students.”

As a result, Morse said that the school district has become a major hub of the community, serving meals at school sites and providing clothing closets.

“It’s not just academics, it’s supporting the whole family,” Morse observed. “There’s a constant strain on parents.”

“Resounding success”

O’Leary admits that he has had to lower his expectations for how much students will get done. “I don’t seem to be able to get as much work out of students as I did when we were in the classroom, but under the circumstances this has been a resounding success.”

Ortega agreed the switch to remote learning has been successful overall despite the many hurdles teachers have had to jump.

“It’s definitely been a new challenge for educators, they’ve had to reimagine education overnight,” said Ortega. “I’m just so impressed with what the teachers have accomplished, and we miss the kids.”

Here’s hoping the 2020-21 school year will prove less tumultuous. And if not, our educators seem well prepared for the challenge.